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On Robertson Boulevard a block and a half north of Pico, just south of Whitworth Drive, on the eastern side of the street, there once stood a three-story turquoise building that had been a posh home in the thirties. But the owner died, leaving his real-estate-rich, cash-poor relatives to turn the domicile into a commercial property.
By 1968 the first floor had become an antique-furniture shop where fifty-something Mrs. Ina Holloway sold old sofas, chairs, and dining tables of dubious pedigree to middle-aged women from Cheviot Hills—women who wanted to make their interior decorations equal in style, if not in value, to their wealthier counterparts’ in nearby Beverly Hills.
The second floor was occupied by an insurance brokerage firm owned and run by Harry (born Hiro) Harada. To hear him tell it, Harry sold insurance on everything from life expectancy to pet health and marriage vows. Harry’s wife and daughter, son, and daughter-in-law all worked in his second-floor office. Only Harada’s gaijin son-in- law no longer worked for the old man; this because he had been in prison for a crime he confessed to, embezzlement. He, Arnold “Sandy” Patterson, was convicted on evidence that was not vetted by the defense or the prosecution—evidence that would not have stood up under scrutiny.
The police detective who interrogated Sandy accepted his confession of having stolen money that Harry’s strawberry-farmer client, Gentaro Takeda, had entrusted to the company: $131,247.29. The money Gentaro gave had been in cash, and the day that everyone agreed that Sandy had taken it he was under the knife at Cedars of Lebanon for an emergency appendectomy.
Indeed, it was Harry himself who had taken the money, believing that his client was senile and probably wouldn’t remember anything about the transaction. So three days later, when the elderly Mr. Takeda returned with his son Ishi to ask for the money back, Harry felt that he was safe in saying he had never received the cash in question. Mr. Gentaro had once told him, Harry claimed, that he wanted to have Harry invest some money but he had never given him the cash.
After the Takedas left, Mitsue, Harry’s daughter, told him that the day after Gentaro had been there he returned saying that he had not gotten a receipt from her father. Harry was at a convention in San Diego so she looked up the transaction in his day journal, saw that no receipt had been issued, and had filled out one of the pre-signed receipts that Harry kept in the safe just in case the family had to do business in his absence.
That right there was the moment of truth for Harry Harada. Gentaro didn’t seem to remember any receipt and Ishi hadn’t mentioned one. Harry’s greed outweighed his morality; it convinced him that the dotty old man probably lost the voucher and that the money, all cash, could not be traced. He told his daughter to forget the receipt and the visit.
When Ishi pressed charges in Gentaro’s name, Harry stuck to his story. But, three months later, when the receipt Mitsue provided resurfaced, a warrant was issued for Harry’s arrest. He had testified under oath that he never received monies from Gentaro and had therefore broken the law.
Mitsue begged her husband to take the blame for the good of the family. Mitsue explained that even if the father was able to stay out of prison he’d lose his license and his customers, impoverishing the entire clan.
And so stout-hearted Sandy confessed. There was no trial to speak of, so the elderly Gentaro, who was indeed senile and unreliable as a witness, was not required to appear in court. Sandy admitted telling Gentaro that he was Harry, and the confused old man believed him. Sandy explained about the pre-signed receipts in the safe, saying that he was trying to get enough money to start a business of his own.
Four months after Sandy was locked away I came to the building looking for office space. Harry managed the property but his wife, Kikuyo, did all the work. The handsome middle-aged mother-in-law did not seem very interested in me as a tenant, probably because of my skin color (which is a very dark brown); that is until I told her that I was a private detective. Upon hearing this she asked me if I could help an innocent man get out of prison.
It was a delicate operation. Gentaro Takeda’s mental condition had declined further. By the time I became involved his testimony could no longer be trusted. When asked who he had given the money to he replied, “My son.”
The money had been returned and Kikuyo convinced Harry to give Ishi Takeda ten thousand dollars to forgo any further complaint. I went to the state’s attorney with evidence that they had convicted and imprisoned an innocent man, and so Sandy was set free and thestate decided not to pursue further charges.
Kikuyo, without telling her husband, gave my company, WRENS‑L Detective Agency, an unheard-of fifteen-year lease at a very reasonable rent.
Harry thought I was overcompensated but he said so only once because, in spite of his dishonesty, he was a family man and freeing Mitsue’s husband brought bliss to his home and his business.
So at 7:42 a.m. on the first Monday in May 1968, I stood out in front of the gaily colored plaster-encased building: a professional detective with a bright future and a dark past.
Ten months earlier I had received a questionable windfall of one hundred thousand dollars in ransom money that no one wanted to claim. I used part of the money to start my own little detective agency with the two best detectives I knew—Saul Lynx and Tinsford “Whisper” Natly. Saul was a Jewish detective married to a black woman who had given him two sons. He was born and raised in L.A. and was accepted, more or less, in white circles. Whisper was a Negro from St. Louis who could find anyone, anywhere, given the time and resources.
Saul, Whisper, and I were equal partners in the business and they were repaying the initial investment at three hundred dollars a month, each.
I took in a deep breath through my nostrils and smiled, thinking that a poor black man from the deep South like myself was lucky not to be dead and buried, much less a living, breathing independent businessman.
Our little agency had a separate entrance that opened onto a stairwell made only for us. I took the steps two at a time until I reached the third-floor doorway. There I stopped again, happy that I wasn’t dead and that soon, if the sky didn’t fall that day, I’d be engaged to the lovely Bonnie Shay.
“Good morning, Mr. Rawlins,” Niska Redman greeted.
She was our receptionist. Butter-skinned, biracial, and quite beautiful—Niska had worked for Whisper after he saved her father from false charges alleged by a business partner. She was twenty-four and filled with dreams of a world in which all humans were happy and well fed.
“How you doin’, Miss Redman?”
“Great!” she exclaimed, showing wide eyes and lots of teeth. “I started practicing Transcendental Meditation. You know, only twenty minutes every morning and night and you have peace of mind all day long.”
“That’s like prayer?” I asked.
“More like yoga or hypnosis,” she said. “How are you?”
“Down to one cigarette a day and I walked to work this morning.”
“Good for you.”
Her nod was vigorous and certain. “Nobody with him,” she added.
His door was open but I knocked anyway.
“Come in, Easy,” he said in a low tone.
Whisper’s face was medium brown with no marked features. You might overlook him even if he was standing right there in front of you. He wore short-brimmed hats of gray or brown without feathers or even a hatband. His clothes were not new or old, natty or disheveled. He only spoke in a low voice, not a whisper, and no one I knew had ever seen his apartment or house. There were some that believed he was married, and one woman I knew swore that she’d seen him sitting in the last pew at Lion’s Den New Baptist Church.
“How’s it goin’, Tinsford?” I asked, taking the straight-back pine visitor’s chair set in front of his small, battered oak desk.
Instead of answering he looked at me with dark brown eyes that contained a question.
“What?” I replied to his unspoken inquiry.
“Somethin’ happy about you this morning.”
“How’s that thing with, um, what’s her name?” I asked, avoiding his question out of nothing but pure stubbornness.
“Lolo Bowles,” Whisper said, “Keisha Bowles’s daughter.”
“You locate her yet?”
“Not in the flesh but I got some leads. You know anybody run one of those clinics gets you off of drugs?”
“Saul’s got a guy.”
Whisper nodded and I stood up.
It was often the case that we asked each other questions, most of which went unanswered. We were all private sort of men who gathered information rather than distributed it.
Our corporation had been up and running for three months but it felt like years. I had never imagined that I’d enjoy working with partners, but just that one cryptic interchange between me and Whisper felt something like belonging.
My office was at the end of the hallway behind Niska’s desk. It had been the master bedroom, making it the largest office with a nice view of a few green backyards. I would have preferred a smaller room but Saul and Whisper took those options before I finished signing the papers Kikuyo Harada had placed before me.
My five-hundred-square-foot office had dark oak floors and a huge cherrywood desk given me by Jean-Paul Villard, president and CEO of P9, one of the largest insurance companies in the world. JP liked me and was my good friend Jackson Blue’s boss. When Villard heard that I was going into business for myself, rather than taking the managerial security job he’d offered, he sent the desk over just to show me there were no hard feelings.
I sat down in my padded mechanical chair, leaned back, and took out the little black velvet ring box that held a brilliant-cut half-carat diamond, set in platinum and gold.
In the last year and a half I had been as close to death as a living being can get and climbed my way back up into a world that seemed new and hopeful. I had two great kids, a perfect island woman that I would soon propose to, a profession I was good at, friends that I liked, and access to powers that most people in Los Angeles (white or black) didn’t even know existed.
I had built the kind of life that I wanted, and once Bonnie said yes, everything would be perfect.
The buzzer on my desk sounded.
“Yes?” I said, pressing the button on the console.
“Raymond Alexander for you, Mr. Rawlins,” Niska said.
“On the phone?” I asked, maybe a little hopefully.
“No, dude,” Mouse called from the background. I could hear him on the phone and through my open door. “I’m right here.”
“Send him on in,” I said, thinking there was a reason that optimism didn’t come naturally to people like me.